There has been no shortage of narrative attempts to deal with the sensitive real-life subject of contemporary war veterans, and their return from the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan to a home that no longer seems to be the same as when they left. That disconnect between war and home in the modern world, the stress patterns of violent conflict in the war zone and the anesthetized comfort of life "back home", may be at the heart of American cinema since the Vietnam era. But, in modern days, that disconnect seems to be more carefully and attentively treated in documentary work; films such as Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington's Restrepo have gotten closer to what it means to be at war than any narrative fiction.
Belgian director Lydie Wisshaupt-Claudel's film is one more proof of that, beginning after the return from war and ending before the return to war. A hushed, quietly observational piece, Killing Time focuses on nothing else but the downtime of a group of Marines recently returned from overseas to their home base of Twentynine Palms, California. The film is cleverly bookended by two symmetrically opposite scenes at a storage facility - with one soldier removing his possessions out of storage at the beginning after returning from his tour of duty, only to putting them all back inside before leaving.
It's a powerful metaphor for these "inbetween days" - some may have family, some not, but they are all suddenly at a loss. What happens when you take these boys heavily trained for conflict, their life defined in terms of one thing, and then take away that thing? What happens when these boys who have seen war come back to the peace they left behind? And which of the two lives is the real one - the one left back home in storage or the one lived in the heat of the war zone?
The title - Killing Time - is certainly not accidental: some of them do go out and shoot stuff for fun, but there's also the sense that there's not much to do to while away the time in the desert other than drink and drive (one of the most powerful scenes has young soldiers in a bar followed by pulsating disco lights that seem like gun barrel sights). Ms. Wisshaupt-Claudel and her camera, neither overly intrusive nor excessively obtrusive, capture unguarded moments and conversations as people readjust to daily life with friends and family, but she is not trying to propose a solution or answer questions: just to open a window into the lives of these men and women and show them when nobody else is looking, focusing on the person behind the job. It's a gentle, warm film about the calm after and before the storm.
KILLING TIME - ENTRE DEUX FRONTS
Belgium. France. 2015. 89 minutes.
Directed by Lydie Wisshaupt-Claudel; cameraman, Colin Lévêque (colour); film editor, Méline van Aelbrouck; a Cellulo Prod, Productions du Verger and ARTE France production, in co-production with the Centre de l'Audiovisuel à Bruxelles.
Screened November 25th 2015, Porto/Post/Doc official competition screener.